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Open dream: Graeme McDowell targets another double at Lahinch and Portrush


In the groove: Graeme McDowell during a practice round at Lahinch yesterday ahead of the Irish Open
In the groove: Graeme McDowell during a practice round at Lahinch yesterday ahead of the Irish Open

By Brian Keogh

Major winners come in all shapes and sizes, and while they all have a past that they can embrace or dismiss as helpful to the cause, Graeme McDowell has two reasons to hope history repeats itself this summer.

Like Pádraig Harrington, who won the Irish Close at Lahinch in his amateur swansong in 1995, McDowell is a different man to the player who won the Close at Royal Portrush and then claimed the South of Ireland Championship at the County Clare links in his magical summer of 2000.

The order is reversed this year as he tees up in the Irish Open, revitalised and ambitious again following his return to the world's top-100 after a two-year hiatus.

He's targeting a return to the top-50 for the first time since 2015 by the end of the summer as The Open in his home town beckons, and when it comes to setting the bar high, he has every reason to be bold.

McDowell has no problem contemplating a famous Irish Open-Open double last achieved by Harrington himself in 2007.

"Wow, that would be pretty special," he said, his brilliant smile lighting up his bearded features. "I like that!"

He's not the same man, that's true, but what he's lost in terms of youth - he turns 40 on July 30 - he's gained in experience, and with power a non-factor both on the Clare and Antrim coasts, it's not an impossible dream.

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"I think he's certainly a bit smarter these days than he was maybe 19 years ago," he said, comparing his 21-year-old self to the Major-winning father of three of today.

"But speaking of singular focus, I was just back from my first year of college in the States and I definitely was starting to develop this accent a little bit.

"But I was very confident. I was very focused on my golf. I had my best eight months of preparation that I've ever had in my golfing career to that point."

He's back in form now having won on the PGA Tour this year and secured that long-cherished Open spot in Canada. And he admitted that dreams of winning -at Lahinch and Portrush and all points in between and beyond - are what fuels him right now.

"To win at Lahinch and Portrush again this summer, that would be special. That would be a pretty cool way to get myself back to where I want to be in this sport.

"I certainly feel like I'm playing well enough to do it."

His new-found laser focus was best illustrated on his return home last weekend when he went out to reconnoitre the Dunluce Links he played multiple times in his youth and reminded himself to get down to work rather than swan down memory lane.

"I was trying to approach my practice rounds up there without too much complacency," he said. "I was like, growing up on the golf course, should I be out here grinding? Yeah, I should be out there grinding. I don't remember it very well.

"It's like coming here (to Lahinch). I haven't played competitively here in 18 years, and aside from the Irish Open, I haven't played competitively at Portrush in 18 years as well. I'm trying not to be complacent with my preparation."

Lahinch and next week's Scottish Open might be warm-up acts for the big show in Portrush, but McDowell is not in Clare to drink in the views, or the Guinness, the way he did with pal Rickie Elliott (now Brooks Koepka's caddie) before they faced each other the day after his 21st birthday here 19 summers ago.

"I'm really trying to play hard these next two weeks so that I can take some form with me to Portrush and be able to take it easy with my prep Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and really just rest up and get ready for the tournament.

"It's going to be good. Like I say, certainly not going up there for a glory walk. I'm not going up there to look around and smell the roses, I'm going up there to compete and be prepared and really take it as seriously as I take any other week. But I'm not sure how many opportunities I'm going to get to do this anymore, so I feel like I take them more seriously nowadays."

If McDowell could pick two venues that suit his game, Lahinch and Portrush would surely figure in the top five.

"I think they're both accuracy golf courses," he said. "They're not particularly long. Links golf, when it's firm, you don't have to bomb. You've got to drive it well at Lahinch, especially on that front nine. There are a few quirky little holes there, and if you're out of position, it can really bite you.

"The winds look very calm for this part of the world, so it's certainly not going to be as tricky as it could be, but I feel like the golf course is strong enough to keep guys honest, so you're going to have to play some pretty good golf, and, like you say, I think it fits my game."

Meanwhile, former champion Jon Rahm feels firmly in his comfort zone as he targets a second Irish Open title in the space of three years.

Rahm, who cruised to a six-shot win at Portstewart in 2017 and was fourth at Ballyliffin 12 months ago, comes into the £5.5m event on the back of a tie for second in the Andalucia Masters and a share of third in the US Open at Pebble Beach.

"I'm confident," the 24-year-old Spaniard said. "The Irish Open is one of the few events, if not the only one, that I feel almost as comfortable at and get the same level of support that I had last week in Valderrama.

"I don't know why, it might be my love for the country of Ireland, but the support is amazing. Every time I come I'm just comfortable. It's a great feeling."

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